I've wanted to fly ever since I can remember. When I was young, I was told I had to be good at math to be a pilot, a subject that was not my strong suit. As I grew up I became engrossed in flight simulators and books. I still wanted to fly, but I wasn't going to do it for a living. Earlier this year, I got to fly for the first time, and sitting in that cockpit got me thinking about how a lot of these systems could be updated. So I set out to learn about and design an updated interface for pilots.
When I first stepped into the cockpit, one of the first things that stood out to me was how analog everything was. Now I completely understand the need for that, mechanical instruments are many times more reliable than a digital display and when you're flying it's very bad to have something fail on you. The thing that I first started thinking about was how to bring some more digital elements into the cockpit that are somewhat more reliable these days than they used to be. The first instance that came to mind was the all screen display and the Tesla vehicles.
So my first iteration of this project was to come up with a cockpit that still had the analog controls and instrument displays but had an updated navigation system and updated specs and data that could help a pilot navigate better and with more information. That concept developed pretty quickly because there was already a pretty standard paradigm a vertical full-screen display navigation system to work from. So I wanted to take it a step further. At first I played around with a couple different screens that surrounded the standard analog instruments but they didn't feel like I had taken it far enough.
Going into full concept mode, throughout all of the prerequisites that I felt a plane's navigation system might need today and thought about what if we were able to develop these systems to be so reliable that any pilot would feel comfortable relying on them in the air. So I try to place myself far enough in the future that worrying about reliability and systems failures was something that I could set to the side while still delivering an interface that was familiar to and understood by today's pilots.
Once I was able to set aside the constraints of requiring analog elements in the cockpit, I was free to fully investigate how we might take these very analog, but mechanical, clear and usable instruments and convert them to a digital display that embraces a more futuristic look without losing all the usability of the previous designs. I took into consideration how a pilot might sit in a plane like this and how they might need to orient their field of view to both fly the plane and read the gauges.
I also tried to take into account the fact that these planes, because we lost the weight and the bulk of all of those older instruments, would be a lot more open and less cramped. There would be a lot more visibility out of the cockpit because you didn't need this massive bulky dashboard. As I started to imagine myself in this new cockpit of the future I try to find efficiencies to let Pilots focus Less on the complicated dashboard and more on flying and enjoying flying the plane. I started to hold together this visor concept that would sit past the dash in the field of view of someone looking straight out the windshield.
This visor serves as a quick glance read out of all the important information that you might need while you're flying without having to decode or interpret a dial or a graph of some kind. Instead, I simply print the label and the value on the dashboard so that they can, with one sweeping glance, know their altitude, airspeed, heading, and more.
As I mentioned at the top, I've been fascinated by planes and flight since I was a child. But despite years of playing those flight simulators and reading books, I knew that I wasn't an expert. So I reached out to a friend of mine from my childhood who had actually gotten there pilot's license and was flying on a regular basis. I sat down with him and presented all of my concepts up to that point, all the questions that I had about how a pilot currently interprets all of these different dials, how they deal with changing weather patterns, at how they orient themselves in the cockpit. We got into in-depth detail around key aspects of flying but I had never learned, tricks that Pilots use to be more efficient in the air, and how approach and takeoff traffic patterns work at different airports.
Our conversation eventually led into the practicality of this new design, where it may be going too far, and where it could go further. I took all of this information and applied it to the rest of my research, how each of the flight instruments works, what they are supposed to show a pilot, and which ones were being phased out with emerging tech that the FAA is slowly implementing. The sketches, findings, and research all led to a very refined layout.
INSERT SKETCHES AND NOTES
I probably could have completed this entire project in a weekend but the subject matter was so vast and the implications so deep that I wanted to take extra time to finalize a lot of these decisions. I worked on this between projects, on odd weekends, and slowly brought together all of the elements that I had explored into this dashboard. As you can see from the sketches and images above, this is a very iterative process that required me to balance a lot of moving pieces and assemble the view in a way that would be informative and not distracting.
One of the things that I am going to work on moving forward on this project is animating all the dial and 3D modeling a cockpit that I can place these mock-ups so that I can get a real-world view of how this display would look to a user. Seeing everything in tandem and moving is going to help me better understand the parts of this design that are too complicated, distracting, and also parts that may not be as crucial.
I had a lot of questions about how this design would look and function in a physical space. Most of the work I do is experienced through either a phone or a computer and so thinking about this display being used in a functional environment, I wanted to get a sense of the scale and space that it would take up. I don't have much experience with 3D modeling applications but I've begun to try and learn some simple applications to get a concept out. In the past, I've built everything from a bed to a table, and so I pulled up the one application that I do know how to use, SketchUp, and threw together a very quick concept in that.
Designing a fully touch screen all glass display that spans an entire cockpit is interesting enough in itself. It's also not too far out of the realm of the possible reality that we currently live in. Something that I didn't necessarily include in my research and sketches but something that definitely had an impact on me as I was making these designs was futuristic Tech in movies and TV shows like Netflix's new Lost in Space and Hulu's The First. These shows are far enough in the future that they can be imaginative and bold with how they imagine our technology will advance but still current and real enough to make them feel a few achievable.
One thing that I wanted to push the bounds on was this concept of a full windshield HUD. HUDs are not something that is a futuristic concept. We have them in our fighter planes and we have them in commercial jets. But these HUDs are limited in scope and they can show. They're basically just transparent digital displays. As I look toward the future I thought about AR and how it could also have an influence on this design. So I created a couple concepts of different displays that could be shown over the field of view of the pilot that could help in dangerous situations, help them land, and help them be situationally aware of other planes and elements in the sky.
These displays needed to be simple in design and not fill the entire field of you up with information that wasn't absolutely necessary to the pilot at that time. These things should blend into the background and only serve as a supplemental piece of information to help the pilot make the decisions they need to make.